Why do cats play?

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Clare Hemington looks at different aspects of how cats develop and play behaviour.

Whoever heard me assert that the grey cat playing just now in the yard is the same one that did jumps and tricks there five hundred years ago will think whatever he likes of me, but it is a stranger form of madness to imagine that the present-day cat is fundamentally an entirely different one. 

Arthur Schopenhauer German Philosopher 1841

For me, this quote reinforces the belief that cats always have — and always will — engage in play. It is such an instinctive behaviour and, in my opinion, is one of the most important gifts we can give them. In fact, it’s so important that it is enshrined in law as part of the 2006 Animal Welfare Act. While the Act doesn’t explicitly state that ‘thou shalt play with thy cat every day,’ it does hold owners responsible for ensuring that the need “to exhibit normal patterns of behaviour are met.” Simply put, this means cats should be able to hunt, if they are allowed outdoors, and if not, that hunting should be replicated in play. 

So, when I was asked to write a series about cat play, I jumped (not quite as gracefully as a cat) at the opportunity. Over the coming months, I will be looking at different aspects of play, including how play behaviour develops in kittens, how you can create a stimulating environment for single cats, and how the play opportunities that our cats have might differ depending on whether they are outdoor cats or are kept indoors.

I’ll also be examining how you can use play to strengthen the bond between you and your cat, as well as the ways in which cats play with each other, and whether it is play or something more confrontational! Choosing the right toys for your cat can be a minefield, so I’ll be delving into the different types of cat toys, along with how play can be used for training your cat to perform specific tasks. I’ll also be looking at the role play has in helping address problem behaviours in cats. In the final instalment, I’ll be doffing my sheriff’s hat and presenting you with the 10 rules of play that as a cat behaviourist I recommend.

To kick us off this month, this feature looks at the function of play in cats and why it’s so important as part of their wider environmental enrichment.

Play is an important part of cats’ lives.

How Cat Play Develops

When kittens are between two and three weeks old, their play behaviour starts to develop. Initially it is used as an important part of their social contact with their littermates and mother. As the kitten grows, playing with moving objects helps them to coordinate their movements and train their brains. This is when they start to stalk and pounce on their siblings and use them as practice mice! They also start playing with stationary objects which helps them learn how to focus on a motionless target.

This would imply that your cat’s play behaviour is there solely to enable him to exercise his instinctive need to hunt, and while for the main part this may be the case, there are other reasons why play is so important for cats.

For cats to thrive they need to be kept physically active and mentally stimulated, although I’m aware that for some of the lazier members of the domestic feline population this might not appear to be the case! However, sleeping up to 16 hours a day is even more of a reason for ensuring our cats have lots of challenges and stimulation when they’re awake, and other than being able to experience the sights and sounds of the great outdoors, the best way to achieve this is through play. It is hugely important for all cats, but especially for indoor cats who look to us — their owners — to fulfill this requirement.

Play is also a wonderful way for your cat not only to get a good daily physical workout, but just as exercise releases endorphins which make us feel better after a trip to the gym, our cats also get a similar buzz after an exciting play session. This is because when cats play the physical activity releases a hormone in the brain called dopamine and it is this that gives your cat a sense of well-being. 

According to a 2019 report written by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, vets confirmed that 44 per cent of cats are overweight or obese, so it might be that having the opportunity to play is not just desirable for these cats, but essential for their health and well-being.

If cats are lucky enough to experience lots of fun through different kinds of play and games as kittens, they are likely to develop optimally and become well-adjusted adults. At the other end of the age spectrum, play can also help cats by slowing down age-related senile change as they advance into their senior years.

Play is particularly important for indoor cats. 

Play or Predation?

When we see kittens starting to stalk and pounce on their littermates, this might look to us like play behaviour, but in reality, what they are doing is practising the vital skills they will need to hunt and therefore, survive when they go out into the big bad world. In the feral cat population, this can be as early as fourteen weeks of age. 

As they mature, and with practice, cats will refine their individual hunting skills, but all of them use the same predatory sequence. This sequence is made up of a specific set of elements based on a ‘stalk-and rush’ hunting method. In the first instance, cats need to search for their prey. When they locate the unsuspecting victim, they will then watch it, sometimes for several minutes. While they are watching, they might be seen creeping, crouching, lying in wait, and treading their back feet alternately. They might also wiggle their bottom which signals their readiness to pounce. Once captured, the prey will be killed, manipulated, and eaten. 

I’m sure you’ll recognise many of these elements when you watch your own cat playing. More than likely, he’ll have a routine which includes stalking his favourite toy, pouncing on it, putting it in his mouth and then having ‘killed it’, walking away. This is why play can be so enjoyable for cats as it allows them to satisfy their predatory instincts.

So, while the links between play and predation are undeniable, do cats ever engage in play simply for play’s sake, and would we know how to tell when this is the case? Come to think of it, do cats themselves know when they are playing? 

When you see cats tossing and throwing live and dead prey in the air, are they playing? It certainly looks like it. Something else to consider is the fact that when playing with a toy, cats are not able to fulfill the final part of the predatory sequence, in other words the eating part! Despite this, they continue to engage with toys day in day out throughout their lives, so could this mean they know they are playing? Or because many cats walk away having caught their toy does this mean that they’ve lost interest because they’re not able to eat the prey they’ve hunted? Up until now, little research has been conducted on play and more certainly needs to be done to help us answer these questions. 

Older cats can benefit from the stimulation.

I’ve often heard the term ‘fickle’ used by frustrated owners who have spent a fortune on toys in the hope of finding the one that will entice their beloved cat to play. Choosing a toy that is similar in size to something they would catch in the wild may pique your cat’s interest, as might a toy that resembles the texture of their pray, in other words feather and fur. In my experience, cats can become much more engaged in the game when owners manipulate toys in a way that creates movement similar to the way their prey moves. This is yet another reason for believing that play is a replication, in part at least, of predatory behaviour. 

Of course, different cats have different predatory drives and while some might bring home the odd rodent, others will turn up with prey, dead or alive, on what seems like a relentless basis. In the same way, it’s also true to say that individual cats have naturally different play drives and there may even be some cats for whom playing is not their thing, although I’ve rarely come across a cat that won’t play at all. One of the main factors that determines a cat’s ability and motivation to play is their age. Clearly kittens require endless amounts of play, while the senior citizens of the feline world might just enjoy the odd bat of a ball, or a nibble on a piece of string.  

To what extent your cat plays might also have something to do with their breed and there are some breeds in particular that show a tendency toward playfulness. Bengal cats, Siamese, Abyssinians, Tonkinese, and Devon Rexes are reported as being more playful and active in comparison to other breeds. If this is the case, my own Siamese cat Billy bucks the trend, only playing very occasionally and in an effort, or so it seems, to please me.

While play is obviously and intrinsically liked to predatory behaviour, it’s likely this isn’t its only function, although what this is has yet to be determined. What is clear is that that play has numerous benefits for your cat: it provides exercise, can help improve your cat’s cognitive function, lowers stress, can help you bond, and most importantly, is simply an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding activity for you cat.